by Nancy Kinnally
Within three months' time, Sandra Infante lost her mother, her sister and her brother-in-law, and not too long after that, her job.
Adding to her emotional strain, at the age of 51 she had suddenly found herself the unofficial guardian of her 12-year-old nephew, the sole survivor of a household wiped out by a combination of illness and old age.
"I felt like I was drowning," Infante said. "Had I not been helped, I don't know what I would have done."
In the end, it was Jessica Parker, a pro bono attorney assigned to Infante's case by the Legal Aid Society of the Orange County Bar Association, who helped Infante keep her head above water.
"She saw past a lot of stuff," Infante said. "She just heard my need."
Parker had a long list of legal hurdles to overcome on the way to helping Infante achieve legal temporary custody of "John," who arrived in Orlando from The Bronx, N.Y., in March 2007 without the documentation necessary for Infante to enroll him in school or even take him to see a doctor.
With John's mother and step-father deceased and the whereabouts of his biological father unknown, Parker knew it would take a minimum of four months for Infante to obtain custody of her nephew. But the school year was about to start and he had already missed two months at the end of his seventh-grade year because of the legal limbo surrounding his guardianship.
Meanwhile, Infante's apartment complex was threatening to evict her for having someone in her house who wasn't on the lease. And after losing her job in June 2007, her money had run out.
Parker recommended Infante apply for Social Security survivor's benefits for her nephew, which turned out to be a saving grace.
"Had it not been for that, we would have been homeless," Infante said.
While John's custody case was still pending, Parker -- with the help of the Legal Aid Society -- was able to convince the school district to allow him to start eighth grade. Now 14 and a high school freshman, he is excelling academically and playing trumpet in his high school band, with his sights set on attending college.
In order to make sure his college dreams come true, Infante has gone back to school herself. She rides the bus two hours each way to attend a medical transcriptionist course so that she can become self-supporting again.
Infante has set high standards for herself and for John, accepting nothing less than A's and B's on his report card.
"If I thought he were C material, it would be okay, but he's not," Infante said. "Just because of his circumstances and what happened to him, that's no excuse for not being everything he can be."
For Parker, being involved in Infante's legal case was meaningful to her personally, but she also believes such pro bono work makes her well-rounded professionally.
"As a transactional attorney," Parker says, "I generally avoid spending time in court," but she has now been to court four times in the course of handling pro bono custody cases and learned something each time.
A commercial real estate lawyer with Baker Hostetler in Orlando, Parker is proud of her firm for its encouragement of her pro bono work.
"Baker is 100 percent supportive of all my work with pro bono," Parker said. "They feel it's important, and that's important to me."
The Legal Aid Society of the Orange County Bar Association received $675,482 in general support grants from The Florida Bar Foundation in 2007-2008, as well as a $134,000 Children's Legal Services grant and a $25,000 one-time grant for nonrecurring expenses. Attorney volunteers took 1,284 new cases and donated more than 17,860 hours to the Legal Aid Society of the Orange County Bar Association in 2007. Together, staff and volunteers served 5,059 new clients in 2007 and closed more than 4,700 cases.